Blind World Magazine

Service dog helps keep autistic child safe.

November 30, 2005.
Slave Lake Lakeside Leader - Slave Lake,Alberta,Canada.

Chip is a chocolate Labrador retriever, living in the Knoot home in Slave Lake. But he’s not your average dog.

Chip is a service dog, trained especially to look after autistic children. He looks after Melissa Knoot, a Grade 7 student attending Roland Michener School.

Last week, Chip’s trainers, Chris Fowler and Wade Beattie of the National Service Dogs Training Centre in Cambridge Ontario were in town to check up on Chip. They visited the school with Melissa, Chip, Melissa’s mom Diane and Beatrice Reid, the aide who looks after Melissa when she’s in school.

Linda Green, the Jr. High Principal, was there as well. They were talking about introducing the service dog into the school setting.

“It’s new to Slave Lake and new to our school,” said Green. “We’ve never had one.”

It will be quite a novelty to have a child with a dog in class and in the hallways. That’s why it will be done “gradually,” says Green.

The main purpose of the service dogs for autistic kids – of which there are now about 80 across Canada – is to serve as a brake on the impulsive wandering tendency of the children.

“Autistic kids are known for bolting out of the classroom,” says Diane.

Fowler says autistic kids typically don’t like being held onto all the time. But because of their tendency to take off at inopportune moments (in stores and on the street too), parents often are afraid to ever let go of the child’s hand. The service dogs are fitted with a vest, to which is attached a strap that goes around the child’s waist. There’s also a handle on the vest that the child is encouraged to hold.

When the child decides to bolt, explains Fowler, the dog is trained to sit down and stay there.

That’s one benefit, and there are others.

“Companionship,” says Beattie. “Most (autistic) kids don’t have friends of their own.”

Diane says Chip has made a big difference to Melissa in the three years they’ve been together.

“She’s so calm now,” she says.

Having the dog does not mean the child is free to go about on her own. The idea is that she should always be accompanied by an adult as well. The dog responds to the adult’s commands.

The idea of training dogs to help people with disabilities other than bad eyesight is a relatively new one. The National Service Dogs centre started in 1996 and was the only one in the world at the time training dogs to help autistic people. The centre breeds and trains its own dogs for this purpose, and has at the moment a two-year backlog of clients waiting for animals.

Such specially trained animals don’t come cheap.

“The cost to place an animal is about $12,000,” says Fowler. “We ask families to help with fundraising in their communities.”

The Knoots moved to Slave Lake in July and don’t know many people yet, but “we’re always looking for fundraising ideas,” Diane says.

Anyone interested in helping can reach Diane Knoot at 849-6985.

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